Tour de Lab September 1st

Guest Opinion: A year of bad headlines for freeway expansion

Posted by on February 18th, 2019 at 9:48 am

— Written by Shawn Fleek (OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon), Mary Peveto (Neighbors for Clean Air), and Anaïs Tuepker (350PDX).

In 2017, the nascent No More Freeways coalition published an editorial in The Oregonian asking elected officials for an honest reassessment of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)’s plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the Rose Quarter Freeway in North Portland.

Since then, headlines over the last eighteen months have only confirmed that this is a gravely misguided project.

I-5 with Harriet Tubman Middle School in the background.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Last March, the Portland Mercury reported ODOT’s own consultants concluded the Rose Quarter freeway expansion wouldn’t have any discernible impact on congestion. This finding may be counterintuitive, but it is a textbook example of the concept of “induced demand,” a phrase transportation planners use to describe the phenomenon in which more lanes of freeways only lead to more eager motorists electing to drive. The Mercury also reported that, despite requests from advocates and elected officials, ODOT has refused to study whether decongestion pricing initiatives could solve the corridor’s gridlock by itself, without wasting hundreds of millions on a widening project that does nothing to reduce congestion.

Secondly – as a result of induced demand, our community will suffer from worse air quality and pollution. In May, the Willamette Week detailed the alarmingly poor air quality at Harriet Tubman Middle School. Researchers suggested students should avoid outdoor recess, and yet ODOT plans to literally expand I-5 into the backyard of the newly-reopened school. The latest studies on air pollution are grim – poor air quality is linked to lung disease, poor student performance, heart disease, dementia and diabetes. ODOT speaks to the importance of healing the Albina neighborhood’s scars from urban renewal, but it is impossible to heal these scars by further polluting air near children’s classrooms. Speaking of public health, ODOT has tried to sell the freeway widening as a safety project. But last October, Willamette Week punctured these phony claims, concluding that the stretch of freeway in question hasn’t seen a traffic fatality in over a decade. Meanwhile, ODOT’s regional arterials remain shockingly dangerous and deadly.

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Finally, squandering half a billion dollars widening a mile of freeway is an egregious form of reckless climate denialism. We’ve all felt the unease that permeates our communities when our neighborhoods are cloaked with the wildfire smoke that has draped itself through the Willamette Valley three of the past four summers. October’s IPCC report warned that phasing out fossil fuels in eleven years was essential to avoiding the destruction of society as we know it. Last month’s reporting by The Oregonian suggests that even with passage of pending carbon legislation, Oregon won’t hit carbon reduction targets without fundamentally reducing emissions from private automobiles. It is frustrating to watch self-proclaimed environmentalists in City Hall and Salem champion freeway expansion when 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. The hurricanes, fires and floods are only growing stronger. Expansion of this freeway represents a complicit willingness to ignore Oregon’s responsibility to future generations and the planet.

Future headlines will only make it more self-evident that spending billions on freeway expansions across the region is a wholly inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars given the daunting challenges Oregon faces. We encourage Oregonians committed to cost-effective governance, our children’s lungs and the planet our children will inherit to join us in submitting testimony to ODOT during this Public Comment period.

— Shawn Fleek is the Director of Narrative Strategy at OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Mary Peveto is the Executive Director of Neighbors for Clean Air, and Anaïs Tuepker is the Lead for Organizational Resilience at 350PDX. Learn more at www.nomorefreewayspdx.com.

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60 Comments
  • Avatar
    Mike Quigley February 18, 2019 at 10:02 am

    Bottom Line: Who’s getting paid off, who’s getting the kickbacks, who’s family relations are getting the build contracts? These are the only things that make common sense given the futility of this project.

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    John Lascurettes February 18, 2019 at 10:37 am

    Addicts rarely see the problem with their vice. We are collectively addicted to the personal automobile in America.

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      9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:07 pm

      While that is true, it misses the larger point that, knowing what we know, our leaders, those running agencies responsible for this stuff, can or rather must take a principled stand rather than abetting auto addiction. Rarely do we step back and admit that smearing honey in the ears of the public is no way to run things in a time like this.

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    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 18, 2019 at 10:50 am

    A lot of people make a lot of money off planning and building these projects. That is a fact and I think it’s worth understanding how the Highway Industrial Complex creates an inertia for these projects that can be stronger than the actual merits of the projects themselves. In this case, ODOT lists 66 people – mostly private consultants – who helped prepare this EA document:

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      Middle of the Road Guy February 18, 2019 at 11:43 am

      It’s possible this is done in an effort to not be sued successfully because it is inevitable an environmental group will sue.

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        9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:08 pm

        “…this is done”

        What is done?

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          Kate February 18, 2019 at 12:29 pm

          I think he’s saying a large group of authors and reviewers to check the work of authors, because an environmental review covers a large variety of environmental impact categories. Each different set of impacts (architectural vs air vs utilities vs hazardous materials, etc.) requires a different expertise so you probably won’t have the same person doing all of it- or even the same firm for a large project like this. Inadequate reviews leaves project open to lawsuits, so I don’t think it’s unusual to see so many brains for projects with federal review. I do think it’s more unusual to see the full list in a draft report (rather than just authors).

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      maxD February 18, 2019 at 11:49 am

      I am probably naive, but I am surprised to see what large role Alta Planning and Design had in preparing this report. They market themselves as so green and bike-friendly, but they have people included on the author list!

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        Middle of the Road Guy February 18, 2019 at 12:03 pm

        Businesses still gotta pay the bills. But what if a company with a green reputation provided a positive review for this? Would it be discounted or respected if it was something that one did not want to hear?

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          9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:27 pm

          “Businesses still gotta pay the bills. But what if a company with a green reputation provided a positive review for this? Would it be discounted or respected if it was something that one did not want to hear?”

          There is really no need to personalize this… “Something you don’t want to hear”… A green reputation is worthless, or worse, if and when it comes to situations like this. There just is no way to defend being in favor of freeway expansion in the 21st Century. Sorry, but you (and ODOT) are going to have to try harder.

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            Middle of The Road Guy February 18, 2019 at 4:46 pm

            In other words, disregard what you don’t want to believe. Thanks for confirming.

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              9watts February 18, 2019 at 5:09 pm

              “don’t want to believe. ”

              We’re we talking about the Tooth Fairy?

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            9watts February 18, 2019 at 5:37 pm

            “Businesses still gotta pay the bills….”

            A perfect catch all excuse to never ask tough questions. Just think how much misery one could justify with this line of thinking.
            Manufacturers of chemical weapons? Gotta pay the bills.
            Land mines? Gotta pay the bills.
            Depleted uranium munitions? Gotta pay the bills.
            Bump stocks? Gotta pay the bills.
            Opioids? Gotta pay the bills.

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        Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 18, 2019 at 12:05 pm

        i hear you. it does feel a bit odd when you first realize that so many of the “green” consultants and planners we hear about are also involved involved in big projects like this. happens all the time.

        remember when The Street Trust was on a Columbia River Crossing advisory committee for many months helping to move that project along before they realized they were being used and finally stepped away from it?
        remember when the founder of The Street Trust (Rex Burkholder) felt like the CRC was a good project?
        remember how “climate mayor” Ted Wheeler is an avid supporter of this project that will expand I-5 in our central city?
        remember all the democrats in Salem happily voted for HB 2017 even though it included $100s of millions in freeway widening commitments?

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          9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:31 pm

          Or when Steve Novick risked everything for … the Street Fee… The most I’ll-conceived public finance caper in memory.

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            soren February 18, 2019 at 12:45 pm

            As I recall, you and many other BP commentators were upset about having to pay progressive income tax. Sadly Novick caved to the Portland Business Alliance and we got a gas tax that subsidizes the ecocidal consumption of wealthy folks by regressively taxing poor people and other marginalized communities.

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          David Hampsten February 18, 2019 at 7:24 pm

          You forgot to blame the Oregon taxpayers, yourselves, who keep voting in the same gang of fools into your legislature and city council, as John Lascurettes implies. You are all in a state of denial. Except for 9watts, of course.

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        was carless February 18, 2019 at 7:57 pm

        I hate to break it to you, but so many design firms in this town have their bread and butter in the status quo. Strip malls, concrete tilt warehouses, big box retail and freeways.

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      bikeninja February 18, 2019 at 3:22 pm

      We should etch all these names on a stone tablet so that future citizens of Oregon ( those not wiped out by climate change that is) can place part of the blame for their dire situation. I have a feeling that those folks who thought that at this late stage of climate change it was important to build a useless freeway will be about as popular to our descendants as head lice and Monsanto.

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    Johnny Bye Carter February 18, 2019 at 11:00 am

    If I was given the power to spend the money I’d choose to to spend it to fund the (likely) entire 2030 Portland Bicycle Plan instead of reconfiguring 1 mile of freeway that results in no noticeable improvement.

    I’m very much a person of logic and I just can’t make any sense out of the decision to try to push a project like this through. The only benefit must be to only those directly involved in the project, as pointed out by the many activist groups and media outlets.

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      Kate February 18, 2019 at 12:34 pm

      Great in theory – but this is a Oregon legislative earmark, meaning money and support comes from all over the state. It’s not Portland, or the metro’s money to flex as they choose. Obviously if the project doesn’t come to pass, the City/ MPO could move whatever their portion was (which i think is primarily surface area improvements on the city grid) and apply it to the 2030 plan. But the rest of the money would likely be reallocated to other projects around the state (for better for worse- i don’t know what those would be).

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        David Hampsten February 18, 2019 at 7:26 pm

        Or more likely to other states who are willing to use the federal portion as intended, to expand their freeways.

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        Johnny Bye Carter February 19, 2019 at 1:01 pm

        Yes, I realize it’s not Portland’s money. I’m just showing how much we could get done as a city if we had all the money they’re spending on the freeway in our city. They’re not going to help anybody using the freeway (commuters to other cities) with this money so I like to dream that it’s Portland’s money and compare it to something that would actually help the city they want to do transportation construction in.

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    Johnny Bye Carter February 18, 2019 at 11:05 am

    If ODOT wanted less traffic on I-5 they wouldn’t have installed electronic reader boards letting you know if that’s a faster route through Portland. Those signs reverse the reason for building I-205 (to divert unnecessary traffic around the central city).

    It’s in ODOT’s best interest to create more traffic so they can use it as an excuse to build more freeways. Building freeways is what they’re comfortable doing and is their preferred type of project.

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      David Hampsten February 18, 2019 at 7:51 pm

      Not just ODOT and friends, but PBOT too:

      4.2.2.4 City of Portland
      Building on early planning, ODOT is working the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Bureau of Transportation to refine design components of the Build Alternative and to develop the EA. In this capacity, the City of Portland has participated as a partner in the Build Alternative’s technical development and public engagement, and as reviewer of methodology and technical reports for the following technical areas: Air Quality, Aqatic Biology, Archaeological Resources, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Hazardous Materials, Historic Resources, Land Use, Noise, Right of Way, Section 4(f), Socioeconomics, Transportation, Utilities, and Water Quality.
      With the multiple transportation modes that converge within the Project Area (streetcar, bike, pedestrian realm, automobiles, etc.) and other multimodal investments in this area, the City of Portland continues to be an engaged partner in rethinking how these modes interact and perform in the Project Area. The City of Portland and ODOT will continue to meet regularly for Transportation Advisory Committee Meetings.

      Presumably these “Transportation Advisory Committee Meetings” are open to the public per Oregon Open Meetings laws, so now you can participate in the process.

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      Chris I February 19, 2019 at 10:29 am

      I thought I-205 was built to encourage sprawl in Clackamas and Clark County? That’s certainly what it has accomplished…

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    David February 18, 2019 at 11:17 am

    I keep finding myself going back to safety as it seems to be the most outrageous claim (lots of competition in this report) given the lack of serious injuries or deaths on this stretch of road. Depending on the definition an argument could be made that it’s actually quite safe because of the traffic.

    Over the past few years PBOT has been doing (almost) everything in their power to reduce speed limits, particularly in areas where people are getting hurt and/or dying. This work has led to the 20 MPH residential speed limits, emergency declarations on SE Stark and SE Division over the past couple years to temporarily lower the speed limit until a formal request can be submitted, speed cameras on some High Crash Corridors, and many, many applications for speed reductions (ODOT has a poor definition for appropriate speed limits but that’s a different matter). Slowing people down has been a priority because it does make roads safer and lessens the damage to people and property when a crash does occur.

    If we are to believe that traffic will magically decrease after this project is complete allowing for faster speeds during high volume hours then it would stand to reason that the crashes that do happen are more likely to hurt and/or kill people. That would seem to qualify as a decrease in safety. This comes with the caveat it only works if volumes are lower which regular readers of this site are likely to dispute as ignoring reality and behavioral economics since an easier drive would encourage more people to drive through this project area thus slowing everyone down and ironically keeping them safer during that trip.

    That ODOT was able to round up 66 people who were able to perform so poorly overall in writing up this EA is disappointing and not at all surprising.

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 18, 2019 at 11:48 am

      David. The safety argument from ODOT is being made in service to reducing congestion. That is, they are worried only about safety as it pertains to fender-benders and other collisions that cause backups. Again.. the safety argument is a congestion relief argument, not a public safety concern argument. And slowing people down isn’t an option for ODOT, because this project is all about improving speeds and capacity for drivers on both the freeway and the surface streets.

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        David February 18, 2019 at 11:53 am

        I get it, this was mostly rhetorical. I wish that ODOT would stop conflating safety with throughput/congestion relief. They really are different things and achieving one is not necessarily correlated with the other.

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    matchupancakes February 18, 2019 at 11:41 am

    The hundreds of million would be better spent on bringing state highways up to city/community standards of safety and maintenance with anti-displacement measures attached. Where is the funding for an improved Lombard through University Park and St John’s? Where are the funds for an inner SE Powell Blvd that Cleveland High students can cross safely and is shoppaboe to those outside of private auto? Where is an 82nd Ave free of cyclists being right hooked via turning vehicles from perpendicular feeder streets? That money exists and it is going to the Rose Quarter expansion. People are dying on the state highways in our city and ODOT is burning through state money trying to convince us that I5 widening is more important than the continuing loss of our neighbors and family members on other ODOT streets.

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      9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:12 pm

      Let’s not forget that we don’t actually have those hundreds of millions…. Oregon has recently followed Washington’s dubious lead in allowing debt financing of highway projects. So our gas taxes now don’t fund much in the way of roads or maintenance anymore, but instead service the debt on past projects. Your gas taxes now go to banks. Whoopee!

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        David Hampsten February 18, 2019 at 7:20 pm

        The federal money is real enough, but from Oregon taxpayers’ point of view, it’s more like a cents-off coupon, like for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or Head & Shoulders. You can either use the coupon a certain way, to increase highway capacity, and pay your local & state share, or not use it all and buy new bikeway capacity instead. But the federal gas tax money can’t be used for that same bikeway capacity – it’s the wrong type of coupon. And if Oregon doesn’t use the offered federal highway coupon, there are plenty of other states that will. including mine.

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          Johnny Bye Carter February 19, 2019 at 1:05 pm

          Having a coupon doesn’t make me want a product that I would never buy. Even if it’s a 2 for 1 freeway expansion coupon. I’ll spend my money on something else and pay more for it because it’s more in line with what I really need.

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    9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    I really like this piece! It hits all the right notes. One would like to imagine a spirited rebuttal from ODOT, but they probably don’t have one, can’t muster the intellectual effort.

    We—you and I—pay the salaries of those rascals, not to mention filling their retirement accounts to overflowing!

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    Aaron Brown February 18, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    thanks for publishing! The No More Freeways website will have our call to action up soon.

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    tim February 18, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    most places car pollution is way lower because they burn coal for electricity. So this article is BS fake news

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      9watts February 18, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      Care to show your math?

      Not quite following.

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        Glennsplanation February 18, 2019 at 3:54 pm

        It’s a reaction to “40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation” (which is written across the lead image, and available without reading the whole piece), and I believe the argument is something like “These potato chips have a lot of calories, but breaded deep-fried sticks of butter exist in the world; therefore I can eat potato chips without fear and the entire article is fake.”

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        Que February 18, 2019 at 4:19 pm

        There’s no math and nothing to follow. When righties hear or read something that doesn’t jive with their preconceived notions they chalk it up to “fake news” so they can move on without being inconvenienced by critical thinking or basic understanding of any issue.

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          Middle of The Road Guy February 18, 2019 at 4:48 pm

          It’s not just Righties. We see this quite frequently on the Left and even on this blog. It’s human nature.

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            9watts February 18, 2019 at 5:12 pm

            Ah, yes.
            Good (flawed) people on both sides.

            Sometimes your desperate need for symmetry calls for evidence rather than just asserting equivalence.

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              Johnny Bye Carter February 19, 2019 at 1:08 pm

              Many “lefties” also like to drive everywhere. I used to.

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      bikeninja February 18, 2019 at 2:41 pm

      This project is not located in most places, it is located here in Oregon where we get significant portion of our electricity from Hydro. But in those places that mostly burn coal for electricity production you logic also makes no sense. Cars in those places contribute just as much greenhouse gas, it is just that burning coal makes even more. Thus it is silly to say that reducing car use to slow down destroying our climate is B.S.

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        soren February 18, 2019 at 7:35 pm

        Oregon’s electricity mix has a high amount of coal (~31%) almost entirely due to power imports from neighboring states. Also, many climate activists (e.g. 350-PDX, Greenpeace, Sierra Club) want to shutdown virtually all of Oregon’s hydropower.

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          Mike Quigley February 19, 2019 at 8:47 am

          Columbia River dams were built to provide barge traffic to Hanford and Lewiston, cheap power for aluminum plants which are now scrapped, and irrigation for raising feed for cows. Wind and solar are good replacements. Existing wind farms along the Columbia are mostly idle because too much power is already available. Breach the dams. Restore salmon habitat. If we don’t do it, Mother Nature will. The sooner the better. Let’s go!

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            Chris I February 19, 2019 at 10:32 am

            Don’t breach the dams until every coal plant is shuttered. Oh, and how do you suggest we control the floods that regularly occurred all over the Columbia basin prior to the dams going in?

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            soren February 19, 2019 at 1:04 pm

            “Wind and solar are good replacements.”

            This is not a science-based statement. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of high-level renewable energy in the scientific literature propose continued reliance on hydroelectics. Hilariously, so do reports from orgs, such as, Greenpeace who now claim that we can rapidly eliminate all major hydroelectric while rapidly transitioning to 100% renewables.

            This response to the famous/infamous “Burden of Proof” publication presents the most optimistic peer-reviewed argument for high renewables that I’ve seen:

            https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032118303307

            However, in most countries, the scenarios rely on wind and solar energy, and here the dispatchable power capacity of the hydro is arguably just as important in balancing wind and solar as the total yearly energy contribution, particularly if pumping can be used to stock up the hydro reservoirs in times of wind and solar abundance [7], [54].

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson February 18, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    The Rose Quarter I-5 project has been at the top of the list of the Portland Freight Committee for years! Who’s that you say? PFC is staffed by PBOT and dominated by trucking interests and railroads and pushed for this project with the legislature in exchange for not opposing a gas tax increase. Definitely no guts all the way around…this project is a “poster child” for NOT walking the talk on global warming from the governor on down.

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    Isaac Hanson February 18, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    Wow, thank you for this write-up. I took away the following:

    No ultimate effect on congestion
    Already poor air quality at the nearby middle school
    Safety on this stretch is already fine (for drivers)
    Counter to emissions reduction goals

    I will definitely be submitting a comment against this highway widening and I will continue to visit the No More Freeways site for more action ideas. Keep up the good work.

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    J_R February 18, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    Anyone who buys anything delivered from anywhere by truck or ever uses an automobile for transportation of himself or herself is complicit. Off with their heads!

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    Jim Lee February 18, 2019 at 10:09 pm

    CRC lite

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      maxD February 19, 2019 at 5:13 pm

      I suspect this project is deemed necessary to reboot the CRC. One significant argument to building the bloated bridge was the Rose Quarter bottleneck. I predict that if this gets built, the CRC will be right behind it. I also think our best chance of doing some version of CRC Smarter Alternative is to stop the Rose Quarter expansion.

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    Cascadia Carbon February 19, 2019 at 10:53 am

    Induced demand is an interesting phenomenon… How about induced reduced demand? Check out cascadiacarbon.com to learn more.

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      Matt S. February 20, 2019 at 5:47 am

      Induced demand gets thrown around here a lot, but it may be ODOT’s goal: to allow more cars to drive through at the same amount of time. As planners, I imagine they’ve looked at this. “We can’t solve the traffic solution, but we can keep it the same for that many more drivers.” Remember, we’re supposed to have tens of thousands of people moving here in the next decade. And if you look at the auto parking around high end apartments such as, The Peloton or Cadence on Williams, one could assume that people aren’t moving here in droves with their bicycles…

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    Tom Howe February 19, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    Check out this Portland map dated 9/13/1975 that shows the impact of freeway expansion. At that time Interstate 205 had been built up to Foster Road and the future path north of Foster is a barren swath where the housing has already been removed.

    https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/ht-bin/tv_browse.pl?id=8544bc16e2157b20c2f41c83cf527049

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    shara alexander February 20, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    When I sent a comment to the email they provided I got an instant answer: “Out of office until Feb. 25th.” It just adds to my feeling that they have a permanent case of “talk to the hand”.

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    Roberta M Robles March 28, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    AECOM, HDR and Alta Planning… say their names. These are the people accepting paychecks and green washing their bank accounts with the snotty nose rags of our sick kids. Feeling the puke come up in the back of my throat. Shame! $$SHAME!!!

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